A former CIA officer was charged on Monday with leaking secrets to reporters — and then lying about it.
The Justice Department has accused John Kiriakou of violating the Espionage Act by outing his colleagues and passing sensitive details about counterterrorism operations to reporters for The New York Times and other media outlets.
Kiriakou, 47, of Arlington, Va., appeared in federal court in Virginia on Monday, where he was released after posting a $250,000 bond.
The Reluctant Spy
In the spring of 2009, authorities found pictures of CIA officers and contractors in the cells of some of the highest-profile al-Qaida detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The discovery caused an uproar and prompted the Justice Department to investigate whether lawyers for those detainees had broken the law.
But, as with many questions that involve leaks of classified information, investigators wound up with a surprising answer. They exonerated lawyers for the detainees — and pointed the finger at one of their own: Kiriakou, who left the CIA in 2004 after working at headquarters and several overseas assignments.
Kiriakou made a big splash after he left the CIA by talking openly about one of the agency's biggest cases, the capture and waterboarding of al-Qaida logistics chief Abu Zubaydah. He appeared on major media outlets including CNN and on ABC, where he later became a contributor.
Among the four criminal charges against him is that he lied to the CIA about material he put in his book, The Reluctant Spy.
Prosecutors say Kiriakou violated the oath he took to protect the nation's secrets when he joined the CIA by disclosing the identity of a covert operative to a reporter and by confirming to The New York Times and others that another CIA officer took part in the operation against Abu Zubaydah.
They say he even gave reporters the officer's contact information while denying the whole thing to the officer himself. Authorities say they found incriminating messages in two email accounts connected to Kiriakou.
And that's bad tradecraft, says former national security official Pat Rowan.
"He was an intelligence officer for about 14 years and remarkably doesn't understand that emails are retrievable," Rowan says.
Rowan says the criminal complaint is remarkable because it describes in unusual detail the way the government went about its investigation.
"The core of the case is the pipeline between the defendant and Gitmo," he says.
According to the Justice Department, the pipeline worked like this: Kiriakou allegedly told a reporter — known in court papers as Journalist A — that a certain CIA officer had worked on the Abu Zubaydah case. And the reporter turned around and gave the information to a defense investigator working for the Guantanamo detainees.
Authorities made clear the private investigator working for the detainees and the rest of the defense teams had done nothing wrong.
Norman Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which helped to get lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees, told NPR in an interview that "we have always known that they discharged their duty to provide zealous and effective representation in a completely ethical manner and we're certainly glad to see the investigation of the defense teams come to a close."
And the American Civil Liberties Union, which also helped with the detainees' legal defense, said it was pleased that it had been cleared in the long investigation. But Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement that "it is astonishing that our conduct was under review in the first place." He also blasted the Obama administration for not bringing any prosecutions over harsh interrogations of detainees that he likens to torture.
The Justice Department also appeared to let the reporters themselves off the hook, perhaps because unlike Kiriakou, they had signed no oath to keep defense information secret.
Rowan, the former national security prosecutor, says that leaves Kiriakou with few options.
"Then the question will be what can Kiriakou do to make this prosecution painful to the government?" Rowan says.
Kiriakou's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, may have a few strategies up his sleeve such as demanding information about other people who worked on the sensitive programs and arguing that what Kiriakou did is business as usual in Washington.
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